The collection begins with the highly personal “Letter to a Young Man,” a poignant open letter to a young African-American college student named Sam who writes to him for advice on manhood. The first thing Powell does is let Sam know that he doesn’t have all the answers, that he doesn’t have “this thing called manhood” all figured out. In this essay, he breaks down patriarchy and how it warps young boys’ sense of manhood, imbuing them with the false idea that men are superior to women simply because they have penises. Using his own life as a backdrop for an analysis of sexism, Powell conveys the intimate details of his relationships with women, including his painful admission of pushing a former live-in girlfriend through a bathroom door, a moment Powell sees as a tipping point in his life.
I have learned since that fateful day with the bathroom door, that destructive manhood in America, or globally, does not care about your race or color or culture; nor does it care about your money or class or status. I have learned that manhood, the twisted and debilitating definitions of manhood most of us have been given, links us closely as the branches of the poplar tree.
Powell goes on to explain how sexism and patriarchy solidify themselves through institutions such as our educational system, which teaches us all about violent men, dubbing them “explorers” and “settlers,” “warriors,” “soldiers,” and “pioneers,” while largely ignoring the vast contributions that women have made to the nation and the world. He also points out the dubious role sports play in shoring up patriarchy via violence. Powell recounts his painstaking journey to rid himself of the patriarchal ideals and urges Sam and other men to do the same: “This is the kind of commitment we men need to make to ourselves: to live a life of peace, of love, of respect for women and girls as our equals.” He adds, “if we men and boys can, with humility, become allies to women and girls, then maybe we can rid the world of sexism once and for all.”
Using a keen analysis of the elections of Barack Obama and the subsequent election of Donald J. Trump along with life lessons learned from growing up in poverty with his single mother in Jersey City, New Jersey, My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man. brings America to bear with itself by telling the naked truth, regardless of what the throngs of MAGA hat–wearing Trump supporters may think. Powell reminds us that in spite of all of our differences, all of our flaws, our destiny is a common one.
“I do see very clearly that we are all connected,” writes Powell in his essay “Will Racism Ever End, Will I Ever Stop Being a Nigger?”
[A]nd I truly love and acknowledge every race, every ethnic group, every identity, and every culture that exists in America, on this earth. But I, we, would be lying if we did not also admit that the longest running drama and the single most dysfunctional racial relationship in American history is between White people and Black people.
Powell contends that as long as the United States maintains this dysfunctional relationship between Black and White people, it can never begin to properly reconcile its sordid history: with Native American genocide and the theft of their land; with Latinx immigrants being viewed as anything other than criminals fueling the profits of the burgeoning prison industrial complex, and cheap labor exploited by the political whims of whoever happens to occupy the White House; Asians being seen much past the stereotypic “model minority”; and the humanity of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims largely ignored. Given this, it is no wonder why some racist elements of American society were prone to denounce the United States’s first democratically elected African-American president as a Muslim.
Powell vividly recalls in the title essay how Barack Obama, a tall, handsome, African-American community organizer, stepped out the shadows of political obscurity and into the national spotlight by doing what I honestly thought was the impossible — becoming the first African-American president in the history of the United States of America, a country whose history is steeped in the virtual genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, along with the wholesale exploitation of women and people of color, in general. Only a few decades before Obama’s election, Black people in the Deep South, such as author Kevin Powell’s mother, who hails from the Low Country of South Carolina, could be killed for trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote for the candidate of their choice. Thus, Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency became even more significant for women like Kevin’s mother who had sacrificed all their lives to afford the next generation such opportunities they could only dream of. For them, the Obamas became the long, last fulfillment of an American dream deferred.
Powell writes: “[I]n a nation where a people who are not White and privileged are treated as outsiders, as undesirables, as interlopers, we look for sheroes and heroes we can connect to, who speak to us, who speak for us, who can be and are what we can never be in our own lifetimes.”
But for Powell’s mother, seduced and abandoned by his father, leaving her to raise alone her only son, the Obamas mean something much more personal.
Except for one Black preacher or another my mother has never had images of Black people on her walls before, not even Dr. King. But in Barack and Michelle, I am sure, my mother saw the supernatural miracle of their marriage and a love she will never have for herself, and she saw a Black man as president through the eyes of that little Black girl in South Carolina who could have never imagined such a reality, not in her lifetime, not in a million lifetimes.
Just as Obama’s presidency marked a milestone in the history of African Americans, it was also seized upon by many Whites — especially the ones in mainstream media who began touting the election as a primary example of the declining insignificance of race, some even proclaiming that we were now in a “post-racial America,” a notion that Powell rejects as “absolutely not true.” He correctly points out that anytime there is significant progress for African Americans or minorities in general, there is a major White backlash fueled by racial animus and mostly manifested via the legal and extralegal actions of Whites.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of American history can see that he is one hundred percent correct. They need simply look at the history of chattel slavery, the Klan, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, redlining, the American Neo-Nazi movement, the Bakke decision, and the Reagan Revolution. If none of the above are enough, consider the salient fact that since the election of the United States’s first Black President there has been a noticeable spike in racially motivated attacks around the country. There is the phenomenon of Whites who show their psychological discomfort from sharing spaces with Black people by calling the police on them for no reason other than suspicion. Driving while Black is joined by a myriad of imaginary offenses: walking while Black, sleeping while Black, working while Black, standing while Black, studying in a public library while Black, waiting in a coffee shop while Black, picnicking in a public park while Black, and the list goes on. Any number of these imaginary offenses, which take place solely in the paranoid imagination of bigoted White folk, can get a person of color arrested, shot, or, worst, killed by a cop or a so-called law-abiding White American citizen “standing their ground.” Powell also points out that “Barack Obama has received more death threats than any other commander in chief in American history.”
According to Powell, it is this zeitgeist of hatred that led to the election of Donald J. Trump:
Indeed, what set the table for Donald Trump was the racist backlash to Barack Obama, were those Congressional members who vowed to block anything he did, those Whites in power who fanned the flames of fear by placing the blame on immigrants, on movements like Black Lives Matter, who made it seem as if they were more patriotic, as a matter of fact, than any other group in America.
The table he’s referring to is White supremacy, a doctrine as American as apple pie, one Trump adroitly uses to keep his base of largely poor, White, working-class males, who are quickly losing economic ground in a shifting global economy, blind to the cold hard fact that they are being duped into supporting policies that severely hurt their class interest, and in so blaming Blacks, Latinx, immigrants, gays, transgender people, the disabled, Muslims, and anyone else who aren’t straight, White, able-bodied males.
Other notable pieces in the book include “A Letter to Tupac Shakur,” “Why Baltimore is Burning,” “Cam Newton and the Killing of a Mockingbird,” and “Jay-Z and the Remaking of His Manhood.” Or, “The Crumpled and Forgotten Freedom Papers of Mr. Shawn Carter” and “Redefining Manhood: Harvey Weinstein and How His Toxic Manhood is Our Toxic Manhood, too.” With My Mother. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. And the Last Stand of the Angry White Man., Kevin Powell examines a salient mix of tough subjects such as race, poverty, and sexual violence with a passion and sensitivity that few writers of his generation can match.
Charlie Braxton is a poet, playwright, and cultural critic. His latest book is Embers Among the Ashes: Poems in a Haiku Manner (Jawara Press, 2018).